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The Chosen Spot - Sonoma County
By John Poimiroo

Carmen Kozlowski carried a pot from her house to the farm store. As she passed, the grandmotherly figure stopped and chatted easily with visitors to her farm while they enjoyed a picnic lunch. Soon, the discussion about the genial winter day got around to how the Kozlowski Farm had become a travel destination.

Like many other California farms, ranches, orchards and vineyards, the Kozlowski Farm in Sonoma County didn’t start out to be a tourist attraction, but economics and a taste for homemade products fresh from the farm transformed it into one of the state’s best places to stop.

When Carmen and her late-husband, Tony, started the farm in 1949, they grew apples. She explained, “One year we had an extra large crop, so I made apple butter with it. Then, a few years later a big crop of raspberries came in, so I put them in jams and as flavorings to other products.” Soon, Carmen’s hobby of combining flavors in new jams, preserves and condiments began winning awards and attracting passers-by.

Today, the Kozlowski Farm, situated on the “Gravenstein Highway” (State Route 116) just south of Forestville, is a “must” stop for travelers from far and near who are dazzled by over 100 tantalizing concoctions lining shelves within the farm’s barn-red retail store. They carry home treasured jars of Raspberry & Roasted Chipotle Sauce, Red Raspberry Vinegar, Red Raspberry Fudge Sauce, Red Raspberry Syrup, California Style BBQ Sauce and Strawberry-n-Rhubarb Preserve.

These aren’t the usual condiments one buys at your neighborhood market, but then agritourism succeeds because it leads travelers to fresh flavors and wholesome experiences that can only be found on the farm. Of all the agritourism destinations in California, Sonoma County is the organic original.

Located 35 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge via U.S. 101, Sonoma County began attracting tourists soon after World War II who were on their way to the Russian River, Pacific coast and redwood forests. Those travelers drove the Gravenstein Highway and other Sonoma County byways passing places like Kozlowski Farms whose growers erected enticing signs and attractions to encourage motorists to stop.

With the explosion of interest in good food and good health in the ‘80s and ‘90s, boutique growers and packers located in Sonoma County, who readily adopted organic farming. That naturally evolved to the County’s wineries which today include many eco-friendly operations and organic estate vineyards. Today, quality organic food products and gold medal “green” wines have become so identified with Sonoma County, that the tourism bureau adopted as its advertising slogan, “Good Wine, Good Food, Good Natured.”

Local bistros, like Saffron in Glen Ellen, depend on nearby suppliers like Sonoma Organics, Paul’s Produce, and Sonoma Savoir to sustain this promise and fill its slotted café chairs with diners who appreciate the 80 percent organic menu. The next day, those same diners may be stopping at Oak Hill Farm to buy some of the unusual varieties of organic produce they enjoyed at dinner the previous evening.

“We were sending people to the farm even before there was agritourism.” says Jayne Burns of Sonoma County Farm Trails, an association that was established in 1973 long before the term agritourism was coined. The self-funded association of 183 members produce just about anything you can imagine can be raised or grown, including produce, cheese, flowers, meat, poultry and wine. The association’s Farm Trails Map & Guide (available online and at local visitor centers) is essential to visiting Sonoma County’s farms, as it color codes them by type of experience and includes contact information and hours/seasons of operation. Many of the farms also post a distinctive Farm Trails sign, though not always prominently.

There are about 15 similar farm trails in California. Most are themed or centered about the predominant crop in a given area, including several apple growing districts, where sales of home-baked apple pies and pastries are popular. It is useful to check ahead to see what they’re offering when you plan to visit, as some operate only during harvest.

Just about every crop grown in California from dates to strawberries, to artichokes to asparagus has its own festival, as does Sonoma County with the long-running Gravenstein Apple Fair, held each August. Unlike some of the larger festivals that attract hundreds of thousands of spectators, about 16,000 come to enjoy its wholesome country experiences and tastings of Sonoma County’s varied food products.

“…the chosen spot of all this Earth…”

It is California’s fertility that allows such diversity of plant and farm life. Few places are as blessed as Sonoma County. As noted botanist Luther Burbank wrote in 1875, “I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this Earth as far as Nature is concerned.” For more than 50 years, Burbank conducted plant-breeding and hybridization experiments at his home in Santa Rosa. He sought to manipulate the growing characteristics of plants in order to increase the world food supply and was successful in creating over 800 new varieties of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains and hundreds of ornamental flowers.

The Burbank home and gardens in Santa Rosa remember Burbank’s legacy and, as a National Historic Landmark, are open to the public daily, with guided tours April through October. The gardens display many of Burbank’s creations, with special areas presenting ornamental grasses, roses, cut flowers, medicinal herbs and wildlife habitats. In Sebastopol, Burbank’s Gold Ridge Experimental Farm is also open year-round to visitors.

As Burbank found, plants grow so abundantly across Sonoma County, that farms and vineyards often cross-over between crops. That happened at Matanzas Creek Winery and Estate Gardens southeast of Santa Rosa, where lavender, planted in 1991, add ornament to the tasting experience. The 4,500 lavender plants soon flourished, as did a cottage industry in fragrances for Matanzas Creek. The winery now packages 80 different lavendar products which it sells at the winery and online, in addition to its award-winning wines. Visiting the winery before the July harvest is the penultimate olfactory experience, with the scent of lavender, the taste of fine wines, the sound of billowing olive trees, the soft brush of ornamental grasses and the display of terraced rows of lavender and vines.

A different kind of synergy is happening at The Olive Press in Glen Ellen in the heart of the oak-forested Sonoma Valley – a prime American Viticultural Area – where Deborah Rogers oversees olive oil production. The Olive Press was created by a group of devoted local olive growers who visited the olive pressing cooperatives of Northern Italy and Southern France and applied techniques and technologies learned there to create high quality varietal and blended extra virgin olive oils. Within a year, The Olive Press had earned its first gold medal. Since then, nearly all of The Olive Press’ oils have won awards and a select few have been acclaimed as among the world’s best, including one that was awarded first place in the “foreign oil” category of the esteemed BIOL Organic Competition in Italy and a first place in the ECOLIVA Organic Competition in Spain.

That is remarkable because California production represents only one percent of world consumption. “It’s a boutique industry here,” Deborah says. Americans are just beginning to appreciate the complex tastes that good olive oils convey to cooking. So, much of the work at the Olive Press is educating consumers about how olive oils are made and the differences between them.

Visitors to the tasting room on Arnold Drive peer through picture glass windows as an imported Pieralisi hammer mill presses up to 10 cases a week of the gold and green oil from California Mission and French and Italian olive varieties. They then turn to a tasting bar where thimble-sized plastic cups of oil are proffered by the tasting room clerk with explanations of their lineage, characteristics and uses. The peppery finish of the best of these oils often surprises visitors who are not used to consuming olive oils neat. The tasters cough as they swallow and Deborah remarks, “that’s the sign of a good oil. We call the best of them two-cough oils, because they make you cough twice.”

New experiences, led by an expert are what attract travelers to agritourism. The growers and farmers, proud of their products and skills, are eager to pass on their knowledge in return for direct sales and customer loyalty. In downtown Sonoma, employees of Vella Cheese – a character-filled stone and brick building a block from where Californians raised the Bear Flag of independence from Mexico in 1846 – take pride not only in the personal attention they give to each day’s production, but to explaining the differences between Toma and Monterey Jack cheeses. Happy customers leave not only with a block of cheese, but with a story to tell and a personal connection to the Vella brand.

It is that response that intrigues Laura Chenel, the first person in the United States to commercially produce goat cheese. Although Laura’s chevres are sold widely across California and the Far West, she has not yet opened a store to sell her cheeses directly to consumers, though admits it is something she would like to do.

Laura didn’t start out to be one of California’s culinary icons. Aa a young woman she struggled to know what to do with herself. After a start in New York, she returned to her native Sonoma and bought a couple of goats for their milk. She recalled, “but they became more and more part of my world until they became all my world. For me, it was all about the animals at first, but I soon realized I couldn’t justify keeping them if they couldn’t pay their way.” Her love of these kids led Laura’s heart to France where she learned how to make goat cheese. When she returned, she established Laura Chenel’s Chevre. San Francisco area chefs soon discovered Laura’s delicious cheeses and added them to salads and entrees. Laura’s fresh, delicately flavorful and quality chevres are now a staple of many fine restaurants.

Inside the timeworn doors of a hotel on Sonoma Plaza clusters of fashionable people dine at “The Girl and the Fig,” a trendy eatery whose Mission-styled amber glass lamps light Gaugin prints. The girl of the restaurant is Sondra Bernstein, its proprietress, and the fig refers to her presentation of country foods with a French passion (symbolized by California Craftsman-styled lamps and French Polynesian prints). There, Laura Chenel’s Chevre garnishes a fig salad of arugula, pecans, pancetta, and fig and port vinaigrette, while local mushrooms, seafood from Bodega Bay and Sonoma duck dress succulent entrees.

The scene at The Girl and The Fig demonstrates how agritourism in Sonoma County has turned full circle where not only every stop, but every meal is part of experiencing the destination.

visit.theflowerfields.com – The Flower Fields of Carlsbad
www.agadventures.org – agritourism along the Central Coast
www.applehill.com – Apple Hill Growers Association
www.calagtour.org – an online guide to California agritourism resources
www.calaverasgrown.com – Calaveras County Farm Trails
www.californiahistoricalsociety.org/exhibits/big_orange/gallery/ -- California orange crate labels
www.edc-farmtrails.org – El Dorado County Farm Trails
www.farmtrails.org – Sonoma County Farm Trails
www.fresnochamber.com/blossom.html -- The Blossom Trail
www.gomendo.com – Mendocino County Promotional Alliance
www.harvest4u.com – Brentwood Farmer’s Market
www.julianca.com/orchards -- Julian Orchards
www.kozlowskifarms.com – Kozlowski Farms
www.lakecountyfarmersfinest.org – Lake County Farm Trails
www.matanzascreek.com – fine wine and lavender products
www.oakglen.com – Oak Glen Apple Growers Association
www.sacramentogardening.com/49erFruitTrails.html - Placer and Nevada County
www.silveradotrail.com – Silverado Trail Wineries Association
www.sonomacounty.com – Sonoma County
www.spendtheday.org – Stanislaus County Farm Trails
www.squawvalleyherbgarden.com – specializing in medicinal, decorative and culinary herbs
www.steinbeck.org – National Steinbeck Center
www.tehachapiapples.com – Tehachapi Growers Association
www.theolivepress.com – The Olive Press, Glen Ellen
www.wineroad.com – Russian River Wine Road

John Poimiroo is a freelance travel writer, editor and communications specialist based in California. http://www.poimiroo.com

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